Why is that phrases such as the one above cause alarm bells to peal and red flags to wave frantically? Because it often signals the presence of that most dreadful and banal artifice of human "achievement": the modern church building. In this particular case, the Church of the Resurrection (or, Resurrection Catholic Parish, according to its website) in Tualatin, Oregon, on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, just 120 miles north of my top secret location. The local paper, The Lake Oswego Review, reports:
The contemporary design of a new church built on the site of an old horse stable is catching the attention of more than just passing motorists. The Church of the Resurrection, near Interstate 205, is receiving national recognition for its modern design for a worship space.
Members of the Church of the Resurrection had only one thing in mind when they accepted the design of Portland-based architect Chris DiLoreto. They wanted a space that would be uplifting and spiritual without sacrificing a sense of community.
Granted, it's hardly clear how the reporter, Jennifer Clampet, knew that members of the parish "had only one thing in mind" — did she interview all of them? But that last line is still a bit depressing. After all, who doesn't want a "a space that would be uplifting and spiritual without sacrificing a sense of community"? In other words, what is specifically Catholic or even generically Christian about such a vague and vapid sentiment? Heck, there are probably atheists who wouldn't mind it if the local Free Thinkers Book Club was able to meet in a space that was "uplifting and spiritual without sacrificing a sense of community."
The article continues:
DiLoreto’s design took a sharp turn away from the darkened worship spaces of traditional Catholic cathedrals with towering steeples, dark colors and intrusive columns. His design called for natural light, a high focal point and space – lots of space
Yes, lots of empty, jarring, and visually discomforting space, as photos from the interior of the parish indicate (here and here and here). And this is good...why? This is "uplifting and spiritual"...how? This avoids sacrificing a sense of community...in what way?
While we're looking at photos, check out the exterior of the gymnasiu—er, parish:
Come to think of it, I've seen gymnasiums that exude far more tradition and spiritual goodness. For example, McArthur ("Mac") Court, the ancient (built in 1926) basketball facility on the University of Oregon campus:
Notice that at least Mac Court has an image of a sacred person/athlete on the front of it. No fear of graven images here! Now, just for old-fashioned, nostalgic kicks (after all, I'll be forty in a few years), how about a picture of one of those dreadful, darkened worship spaces mentioned by Clampet?
It's not a cathedral, but it is (surprise!) in Oregon: St. Mary parish in Mount Angel, Oregon. It is a truly breathtaking Catholic church, with exotic features such as statues, stained glass, artwork, and so forth. Meanwhile, back to the glowing report of the Uplifting and Super Spacious Parish of the Resurrecifix:
In the front a 12-foot statue of the resurrected Christ hangs suspended in the air by wires in the front as light from the south wall’s skylight floods the church with natural light. The design of the building creates the effect of a floating ceiling. Windows line the walls where they meet the ceiling.
The four-story-high north wall is made mainly of glass windows. A sloped downgrade makes the parking lot below almost invisible and draws the attention upward over I-205 and across the hill-scattered landscape.
The floor, the unobtrusive columns and the ceiling beams are all made of concrete. With the major building blocks of concrete and glass, Akins calls the church “simple but elegant.”
The sharp lines, simple décor and overall modern design were, at first, a little hard to swallow for some church members, Akins said. But after several gatherings in the church, which can seat 800 people, Akins said most members got used to it.
"Most members got used to it?" That's a rousing endorsement!
Yes, it's easy to carry on and on about such nonsense. Just to be clear, I make no judgments at all about the orthodoxy, sincerity, and goodness of the folks at the parish. But I think it's safe to say that the parish doesn't look like a parish. Nor is it really inviting, spiritual, or worship-ful in any meaningful way. So why are such buildings constructed? For answers to that important question, consider two Ignatius Press books, one available now and one being published in April:
Amid the growing dissatisfaction with Catholic church architecture since the Second Vatican Council, and the general lack of clear and vibrant direction in liturgy, this book responds to the timely question of "How ought we build our churches?" Drawing upon the texts of the Second Vatican Council, recent papal encyclicals, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Schloeder examines this question in depth with regard to history, theology, iconography and symbolism.
Schloeder seeks not merely to analyze why modern churches are so uninspiring, but he offers positive direction for the renewal of an authentic Catholic architecture: one that respects the traditions of the Church's magnificent artistic heritage while advancing the vision of the Second Vatican Council. The key to the solution is to regain a sacramental vision of the liturgy and of architecture, a vision that will help us to build churches that nurture the human spirit with beauty and meaning. 310 illustrations.
"Steven Schloeder boldly storms the ugly citadels of architectural, liturgical, and theological modernism. This truly original book is a courageous attempt to write a theology of architecture faithful to the great liturgical tradition of the Church." — Fr. John Saward
Steven Schloeder, NCARB, is an architect and the founder of Liturgical Environs, an architecture firm specializing in Catholic Church projects across the United States.
And, being published this April:
No Place For God: The Absence of God in Modern Church Architecture by Moyra Doorly
Once modern science declared the emptiness and meaninglessness of a strictly material universe, it was only a matter of time before architects would adopt the new understanding of space, that is to say that no space is special because none is any different or better than any other. In their quest to adapt to and speak to the present age, Catholics over the last forty years have unquestioningly allowed the trends in modern architecture to fashion their churches, and the outcome has been the construction of the ugliest and emptiest churches in history, according to author Moyra Doorly, an architect from England.
In No Place for God, Doorly traces the principles of modern architecture to the ideas of space that spread rapidly during the twentieth century. She sees a parallel between the desacralization of the heavens, and consequently of our churches, and the mass inward search for a god of one’s own. This double movement — away from the transcendent God, who reveals himself to man through Scripture and tradition, and toward an inner truth relevant only to oneself — has emptied our churches, and the worship that takes place within them, of the majesty and beauty that once inspired reverence in both believers and unbelievers alike.
In non-technical language accompanied by photographs, Doorly explains what has gone wrong with our churches and suggests a simple way to begin rectifying it.
Moyra Doorly, an architect who lives in England, is also a Catholic journalist and writer in the UK. She has written for various popular publications including The Guardian, the New Statesman, Tatler, and the Fortean Times.